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Storied Design

By Kim Palagyi

Burgers are a transcended sandwich. The idiosyncratic journey of each ingredient within the bun makes them taste so wonderful. The burger at Shake Shack illustrates how precise preparation and ingredients make an amazing product. The simple ingredients tell a story: The meat is smashed ice cold onto the griddle to form an umami-crusted patty, clammed by a buttery, toasted Martin’s potato roll.

Like threads in a burger tapestry, the perfect burger is designed by the narrative of its ingredients.

Pairing narrative with design establishes the integrity of any product. Design that evokes a story gives more for the audience to absorb, enjoy, and ultimately value. It informs us that storytelling is how to begin designing.

The experiences you create, whether with a product’s packaging or web page, should impart meaning to your audience. Where there is meaning, there is authenticity, trust, and a lasting relationship with customers.

Philadelphia’s Own

Take for instance the Barnes Foundation in Woden’s home city of Philadelphia. The precise and thorough design narrative of the building, informs how visitors consider and interact with such a monumental collection of art. In fact because each element is planned out, it changes our experience without us even realizing.

The building is set on the bustling Ben Franklin Parkway, but the main entrance is elsewhere — not to snub the parkway, but to forcefully direct how guests enter the space. The main entrance is set along a zen-like pathway between an adjacent reflecting pool and large wall. The wall hides the neighboring streets while the reflecting pool quietly bubbles, masking the city. The entrance acts as an enclave and, as guests approach, their conversations quiet — mirroring the peaceful environment and transforming the ambience inside the main building.

The building itself is constructed from sourced Israeli stone. To select the stone, architects tested several samples, exposing them to the elements for one year to compare their aesthetics in all of Philly’s seasons. The final choice has three different finishes throughout the building, providing continuity while maintaining a rich textural narrative, as well as sporting amazing fossils. The rough surfaces on the interior are hand carved to reflect a pattern reminiscent of an African rug, a nod to Albert Barnes’s ambitious continental collection of African art. The building embraces this tradition because of Mr. Barnes’s eagerness to understand African art, despite the indifferent nature of his contemporaries in the early 20th century.

Along with these components, the many multi-cultural African details within the building indicate that the Barnes Foundation embraces its uniqueness to differentiate itself from other museums and art collections. The building displays a strong narrative that mirrors how special and idiosyncratic the collection is, reflected in compelling design.

Everyday Life

Another example of how strong narrative informs good design comes from an item as simple as a cake server. An Arne Jacobsen cake server is not only an elegant piece, but considers the difficulty in serving cake. Although it was first produced in 1957, it is still widely celebrated and regarded. Cake holds a warm place in the hearts of many, and the elegance of the slicer is on par with the cake experience.

The server is one piece, with one rounded side that makes it easy to cut into cake. The grip is wide enough to comfortably support the weight and transport of a slice while serving. A Jacobsen cake slicer is beautiful not only because it looks good, but it serves cake really well. It considers what people really need, a solid tool, and makes eating cake that much more enjoyable. The piece is world-class Danish design, but sticks to its purpose like any good story.

Design the Future

Lastly, consider the initiative of the creators of the platform DemocracyOS. Their aim is to challenge the way government makes change, by redesigning democracy beyond simply electing officials.

DemocracyOS uses open source software that allows citizens to debate and vote on all congressional bills. In order to be taken seriously, the software gained press when it ran as a political party in Buenos Aires, the elected candidate committed to voting on each bill whichever way the app decreed. The story behind the idea is to update government systems to reflect the 21st century, where the Internet is used to ignite change everyday. The software, now in 15 languages, has helped Tunisia debate its national constitution and along with other examples is working towards bringing democracy closer to citizens, right on our phones. Ultimately DemocracyOS brings story, the ideas of everyday citizens, directly to design.

Strong narrative should always inform how we shape our lives. The things we do and the products we use should be as colorful as the stories we tell. If we don’t uphold strong narrative, what’s the point? The only thing a dull, flat branding initiative contributes to is a dead-end world. Use stories to reflect what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it, and your audience will repay you in more than business, but in support. If you use great storytelling to inform design, the outcome will create more than an incredible product; it will create memories.

Start with storytelling and design will follow.

Kim Palagyi is an intern at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, let Woden help. Download our free StoryGuide, or send us an email at to discuss how we can help tell your story.